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Justice Dept. considered relationship between reporter and source before secretly seeking records

James A. Wolfe, center, leaves court last week in Baltimore. Wolfe has been accused of lying to FBI agents investigating leaks. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

As top Justice Department officials considered whether they could secretly subpoena the records of a national-security reporter to advance a leak investigation, they homed in on the reporter’s romantic relationship with a man they believed to be her source, two people familiar with the matter said.

In normal circumstances, they would have to notify the reporter of the subpoena before they used it. But Justice Department leaders worried that if they told Ali Watkins of their intentions, she might tip off the man, a former director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, or take other steps that would upend the investigation, according to one of the people who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an open investigation.

Prosecutors ultimately obtained phone and email records for Watkins, 26, who now works at the New York Times, without telling her — a move that generated a firestorm of controversy when it finally became public last week, as the FBI arrested James A. Wolfe, 57, her former boyfriend.

Mark J. MacDougall, Watkins’s lawyer, declined to comment.

Free-press advocates asserted that the aggressive tactic seemed to violate Justice Department policies that require reporters be given a heads-up when their materials are about to be seized. The Justice Department countered that officials had followed the guidelines, which do contain a provision allowing prosecutors to skip giving notice if it would “pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation.”

At a court hearing Wednesday, Wolfe pleaded not guilty to lying to the FBI, which was investigating leaks of classified information to the press. His attorneys said that, to ensure a fair trial, they were likely to ask a judge for a gag order, citing unspecified statements by Justice Department officials and “glib remarks” by President Trump that “prejudged Mr. Wolfe.”

In charging Senate staffer and seizing reporter’s records, Justice Dept. ignites debate over leak crackdown

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that an agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Jeffrey A. Rambo, approached Watkins last summer and questioned her about her reporting and how she developed information, according to people familiar with the matter. Rambo also asked Watkins, then a reporter at Politico, about her relationship with Wolfe and gave her accurate dates and destinations for two trips the pair had taken together overseas.

A law enforcement official familiar with the case said Rambo was not working with those investigating Wolfe. CBP, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is primarily responsible for securing the country’s borders and is not typically involved in government leaks investigations. 

Some lawmakers reacted with alarm to revelations that a law enforcement officer questioned Watkins about her reporting and seemed to have had access to her travel records. 

Two top Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee said in a letter Wednesday to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and her predecessor, current White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, that Rambo’s “alleged misconduct is deeply troubling.” 

Reps. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) and Jamie Raskin (Md.) asked if Rambo’s actions were authorized by any DHS official, and if Rambo or other officials approached more journalists about their sources. They said if Rambo violated privacy laws to obtain Watkins’s travel records, it could “constitute a criminal act.”

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported it was reviewing Watkins’s work history, including “the nature of her relationship with Mr. Wolfe, and what she disclosed about it to her prior employers.”

Before coming to the Times, Watkins covered the Senate Intelligence Committee for BuzzFeed and Politico, and her relationship with Wolfe seems to push the boundaries of journalism ethics. Though Watkins has denied to the Times that Wolfe was ever a source of classified information during their relationship, Wolfe sent at least one text in December 2017 suggesting he was at least a tipster.

“I always tried to give you as much information that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else,” he wrote, prosecutors alleged in an indictment.

The Justice Department, meanwhile, has been left to battle criticism from free-press advocates, even as prosecutors try to push forward a criminal case against Wolfe. In addition to giving a reporter notice of a subpoena, the department is supposed to make “all reasonable alternative attempts” to find the same information elsewhere.

One person close to the Senate Intelligence Committee said Wolfe’s phone seemed to provide all prosecutors needed to bring the indictment they did against the former security director. The Justice Department sought information on Watkins dating back to her time as a college student.

Wolfe ultimately was charged with lying to the FBI — not disclosing classified information. According to the indictment, investigators looking into “multiple unauthorized disclosures of classified information to one or more members of the news media” asked him about his contacts with reporters, and he misled them.

The indictment described Wolfe’s interactions with four reporters, although Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said prosecutors did not issue subpoenas for materials on any of the other three.

The indictment alleges that Wolfe told investigators in a December interview that he had “no official or professional contact with reporters,” and he also claimed not to have a personal relationship with any reporters. Both statements proved problematic.

Wolfe, according to the indictment, engaged in a years-long relationship with Watkins, and the two exchanged tens of thousands of electronic communications from mid-2014 to about ­December 2017.

Watkins was approached by the FBI in late 2017 about her relationship with Wolfe, and she was notified, retroactively, in February about the subpoena of her records. On the day Wolfe was arrested, Watkins notified the New York Times of that subpoena. A spokeswoman for the newspaper said she did not do so earlier after conferring with her personal lawyer.

Watkins had told the Times and Politico about her relationship with Wolfe. She informed Times editors after she was hired but before she began work, Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said Wednesday. At Politico, she did so only after the incident in which Rambo approached her.

Rambo is now facing an internal investigation after The Post first asked CBP this week about his interactions with Watkins.

Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.